First things first. A passively-obtained backlink is nothing more than a link to your site that you had nothing to do with obtaining. You didn't know a thing about it. Didn't ask for it, didn't pay for it, didn't swap for it. It just happened.

The search engines love passive links like this. Why? Because they can trust them.

Here's an example. You sell organic produce. You have a web site. You sell your produce all over the U.S., to hundreds of stores, food chains, and specialty markets. You've never once asked anyone to link to your site, yet your site has several hundred links. How can this be?

Reason 1: Many of the stores you sell your organic produce to also have web sites, and on their sites they have a section named "Suppliers". In this section they list the companies (like yours) that they purchase products from, and when those companies have web sites, they make a link out of the company name. Bingo, a passively obtained backlink for the organic produce company.

Reason 2: Your company is going to attend a upcoming trade show for your industry. It just so happens that the trade show has a web site, and on the trade show site there's a section with links to the web sites of all the companies that are going to attend. Bingo, another passively obtained backlink.

These are just a couple reasons a site might have links they didn't seek. And search engines judge these types of links as being a better indication of the quality of the content on the site being linked to than the links you DO actively pursue and obtain. This makes sense to a certain point, since the basic nature of the web from the early days was a massive network of passively obtained links. Back in 1993, nobody was seeking links in order to improve their search rankings, because none of the search engines looked at links. They looked on-site only.

But here's a dirty little secret. Many links that appear to have been passively obtained are in fact actively obtained.

How do I know this? Because many of the links I mentioned for the organic produce company in "Reason 1" (above) actually came about because I requested them. Many of the grocery web sites existed before the organic produce company had a web site, so the grocery store sites couldn't link to the organic produce site, since there was nothing to link to. But once the organic produce company launched their web site, BINGO, now there was something for the grocery store sites to link to. The only catch is that all those grocery sites have no idea the organic produce company has launched a site, so link requests HAVE to be made.

So, what appears to be a passively obtained backlink is in fact an actively obtained backlink.

But all this masks the more important lesson. Every web site has its own universe of inbound links it can reasonably expect to come about from a passive approach. But you can't just sit back and wait for a webmaster somewhere to happen upon your site and link to it. The key is to be strategically active, rather than randomly active. Make sure you know which sites are the best targets for your link requests. If you aren't sure, seek advice from someone you trust. The goal is not to trick the engines into thinking an actively pursued link is a passive link. It's to make sure you obtain the links your site has a natural and logical reason to obtain. Identifing the natural and logical targets is 90% of the battle.

Discuss thsi article in the Small Business Ideas forum.
May 2, 2005

What is link popularity? How do you get it? In several ways, none of which are easy. There are no shortcuts to the process of building links. Eric provides credible information about the art of link building, and dispels/debunks the many claims and rumors regading link popularity, especially as it relates to search engine rankings.

Eric Ward founded the Web's first service for announcing and linking Web sites back in 1994, and he still offers those services today. His client list is a who's who of online brands. Ward is best known as the person behind the original linking campaigns for Books, The Link Exchange,, Rodney Dangerfield, WarnerBros, The Discovery Channel, the AMA, and The Weather Channel. His services won the 1995 Tenagra Award For Internet Marketing Excellence, and he was selected as one of the Web's 100 most influential people by Websight magazine in 1997. Eric also writes the Link Building column for ClickZ, the NetSense column for Ad Age magazine, and is a 4-star speaker for iWORLD, Fawcette, and CNet.

Search Engine Guide > Eric Ward > Linking's Holy Grail: The Passively-Obtained Backlink